Are the Chickens Coming Home to Roost?

By William Hausdorff

This is the time of the year to reflect on the big events of the year.  For those of us who live in Brussels, certainly the vicious bombings in March at a metro stop 10 minutes away from my home and at the airport (15 minutes away) stand out.  Fortunately, no one I knew personally was hurt.  But the Belgian flag is once again flying at half-mast over the nearby city hall building, this time because of the murderous attack on the Berlin Christmas market. Sadly, these tragic events only temporarily overshadow the most-painful-of-all US presidential elections.

It was easy to be overwhelmed by the singularity and bizarreness of the recent Presidential campaign.  But US history is filled with nasty, colorful campaigns; perhaps they are actually the norm. The election itself may turn out to be one of the most momentous elections ever, but it’s worth recalling that each of the past 3 or 4 Presidential elections truly seemed, at the time, to be one of “the most important elections ever,” and not all of them were. True, without Bush in 2000, there would almost certainly have been no Iraq invasion, no US-sanctioned torture, and quite possibly no ISIS.  And without Obama in 2008… goes without saying.

So what’s really different this time around?  There are at least 4 President-elect behaviors that must be truly unprecedented in US history:

the baseless allegations of massive fraud in one’s own presidential election;

the naming of a truly delusional national security advisor;

the angry dismissal, without examining the evidence, of any possibility that Russia interfered with the US election; and

the commingling of the President’s personal business with that of the US government. 

In a “normal” election year, I submit that any of these would be considered by the vast majority of the American population as a sufficiently disqualifying behavior for a President.  Why aren’t they now? Why are people—and their leaders—so cynical or fatalistic? Many analysts point to stagnant economic trends, the widening gap of haves and have-nots, the seemingly endless wars, underlying racist tendencies in America--all of which undoubtedly play important roles.

Less explored has been the role of four major existential scandals in the past 15 years--concerning free elections, torture, invading countries without justification, and widespread financial malfeasance-- and more specifically the abject failure of the Federal government, whether executive, legislative, or judicial branches, to hold ANYONE accountable for them.

In each case, there were serious investigations that led only to partial political “fixes.”  These substituted for the absence of any serious national conversation regarding the unacceptability of what took place.  I believe the culture of impunity among “the establishment” from these scandals has fed much of the cynicism already haunting us in the Trump administration’s pre-natal days.

1.  It is unprecedented for a President-elect to allege massive fraud in the election he participated in without bothering to provide a shred of evidence.  52% of Republicans agree he “won” the popular vote.

Why does Trump even have an opening there?  Why do so many people, right and left, not trust the voting system?  One can argue it is because the US political establishment never took seriously enough the debacle that was the 2000 hanging chad election.  It is chilling to re-read the sequence of events leading to the Supreme Court’s stoppage of vote-recounting efforts in Florida.  The political threats to have the Florida legislature declare Bush president regardless of the popular vote, the “Brooks Brothers Riot” of Republican operatives physically stopping a recount from occurring, the openly partisan behavior of Supreme Court Justices leading up their final vote. 

The federal remedy consisted of a bill that provided badly needed funds to update election machinery in 2002 (Help America Vote Act). Yet elections in the US are still via a hodgepodge of voting methods, some states with paper, others with electronic machines with and without paper back ups.  Gee-whiz stories continue to abound as to how easy it would be to hack election machines.  In the meantime, the Green Party aborted recounts revealed ongoing, fundamental problems in the voting and auditing processes, but these are almost totally ignored.

As a side note, we should not get too sacrosanct—US-led manipulation of other countries’ elections is a time honored tradition, as Ariel Dorfman reminds us, for example, in Chile.

2. It is not unprecedented for incoming Presidents to be blissfully ignorant of basic history, geography, or facts.  Both Reagan and Bush Jr wore their ignorance as a badge of pride, and it was assumed by many that the knowledgeable, experienced hands around them (e.g., Cheney, Rumsfeld) would more than make up for that deficit. We know how well that worked out.

But I don’t recall any example where a president-elect has steadfastly refused to even listen to the intelligence briefings produced by his nation’s agencies regarding the interference of another country in our national elections.  Nor do I believe has any openly ridiculed the apparently unanimous conclusion of Russian interference, all the while praising Russia’s autocrat as a stronger “leader” than the current US President.  

Trump’s smug explanation is that the CIA gave “false intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s weapon of mass destruction.”  That certainly has been the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld defense—it was all faulty intelligence.  But the larger story is the President ignoring, fabricating and distorting the tenuous nature of the evidence to advance his own political agenda—just as Trump is doing.

The manipulation of evidence is clearly documented in the bipartisan report of the 2008 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which systematically walked through contemporaneous statements by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, et al and compared them with the intelligence from the CIA and other federal agencies available at the time.  Their damning conclusion is that Bush and Cheney manipulated intelligence information to deliberately and misleadingly promote the ideas that Iraq had nuclear weapons, and that Al Qaeda and Saddam worked together on 9-11, to justify the invasion.

Nonetheless, the culture of impunity reigns.  As far as I know, no member of the Bush Administration faced any legal penalty for this brazen behavior with such far reaching consequences.  And unlike in the UK, where ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair was forced to testify under oath to Parliamentary inquiries, neither the President nor Vice-President have ever been seriously confronted with their deeds.  The Senate report is more or less forgotten, and Trump is thus free to claim that it’s all the CIA’s fault.

3.  I suspect one can find a treasure trove of statements by past cabinet nominees, if not Presidential candidates themselves, which are similar to those of Michael Flynn, in openly disparaging major religions.  Flynn’s examples include his rants that Islam is a “malignant cancer” and “Jews” are blaming the “Soviet Union” for the DNC email leaks.  But it surely is unprecedented for a President-elect to name a National Security Advisor, or any high cabinet official who, along with his son, disseminates bizarre and slanderous information that the opposing presidential candidate commits sex crimes with children.  Only after the recent shooting in Washington DC inspired by such garbage did Michael Flynn quietly delete those tweets, as if they never existed.

How “demented,” in the words of former Flynn supporter General Barry McCaffrey, does a person have to be to worry a Republican Congress that he’s the one advising the President—one who is not interested in routine intelligence briefings—on what constitutes a real national security threat? Although the National Security Advisor is not subject to Senate confirmation, it would not be difficult for Congress to hold up other nominations until Trump withdraws this one.

In Flynn’s twisted universe, the practice of summarily jailing and torturing suspected “terrorists and their families,” as proposed by candidate Trump, can easily resurface.  Yes, the torture practices of the Bush Jr administration eventually stopped, after sufficient outcry. Yes, in one of his first official acts in 2009, President Obama issued executive orders banning torture, and the Congress even finally (six years later!) passed a law to codify this over the objections of 21 Republican senators.  These were crucial steps.  However, they fall short of the necessary public, painful conversation about torture, who ordered it, what happened, what it achieved and what it didn’t, and most importantly, to hold senior administration officials responsible. 

A major step could have been taken by making public the 770-page Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, as requested by 7 senators.  Yet the Obama administration very recently declined to declassify it, for at least 12 years.  Why is the US unable to openly confront this admittedly painful issue?  Even a South Africa that suffered so terribly under apartheid was able to constitute a highly effective and cathartic Truth and Reconciliation commission, widely credited for avoiding all out civil war.

Without an open, public conversation, and some kind of personal responsibility assigned, there is no reason to believe that the hallucinating Flynn-Trump duo won’t find a reason to institute torture yet again, surreptitiously, and with impunity.  We are naive to put all our faith in the good intentions of Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis. 

4.  In some ways, most stunning is the commingling of the President-elect’s company businesses with the US government in a brazen, unprecedented fashion so that diplomats and military personnel won’t ever know for sure whose interests they will serve.  As President-elect, he is having his children, who are actively running his business, directly participate in meetings and calls with foreign leaders with whom they have business interests.  He continues to refuse to fully declare his economic holdings and therefore allow the American public to even see where potential conflicts lie. 

Trump and his apologists’ (such as Paul Ryan) main defense here is that the US people knew of Trump’s conflicts when they voted for him. Unspoken is a cynical tolerance of corruption--this is the way the world works, it’s all about gaming the system.  Indeed, there is a plausible suggestion that Congressional Republicans are willing to let these gross, obviously unconstitutional conflicts slide in exchange for allowing Pence and the Tea Party Republicans to essentially decide the composition of Trump’s cabinet.  

Unfortunately, cynicism does seem to be the lesson of the Federal response to the devastating 2008 economic crash. On the one hand, there were investigations of the subprime mortgage scandal, and a serious legislative effort to prevent it from happening again (Dodd-Frank).  Yet after the banks were bailed out, not only was no banker successfully prosecuted, but they ended up receiving millions in bonuses, supported by the taxpayer bailouts.  No one was held legally accountable.

In short, I’m afraid that our unwillingness to hold establishment leaders responsible for the damage they have done to the American system has helped created the climate of cynicism and impunity that is fertile ground for the Trump Administration.